The Libertarian Missionary
By Bryan Caplan
You’ve already heard from the Conservative Missionary – the hypothetical conservative debater eager to convert libertarians to his side. Now it’s time for the Libertarian Missionary to take the podium.
Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians
I agree with my conservative opponent that there are many important values. I’ll accept his whole list – happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and survival. And I agree that all of these values conceivably conflict with liberty. But like other conservatives, my opponent is too quick to deny priority for liberty – and much too quick to confidently announce that serious conflicts exist.
Liberty is not just another important value. It is a moral constraint on the pursuit of other values. Consider the classic thought experiment where five people require organ transplants to survive. Almost everyone grants that it would be wrong for a doctor to murder a stranger to save his patients’ lives. It might be noble for the stranger to volunteer, but taking his organs without his consent is wrong, even if it leads to a better overall outcome.
The standard response to this experiment is to raise the stakes: What if the doctor could save a million lives instead of five? This is a good objection to absolutism. But the weaker conclusion – you shouldn’t violate liberty unless you can reasonably expect a much better outcome – still stands.
In any case, conservatives are too quick to accept alleged conflicts between liberty and other values. My opponent mentions standard market failure arguments against laissez-faire, but the connection between these arguments and major government programs is tenuous at best.
Take Social Security, the biggest program in the U.S. budget. Conservatives want to curtail this program, but why won’t they go further? My challenge: Name the market failure that leads people to neglect their own retirement. Irrationality is the only credible candidate, but this would at most justify forced savings for the irresponsible minority, nothing like the universal program we have.
Still, when faced with an alleged conflict between economic liberty and other values, conservatives often show a healthy skepticism. Outside of economic policy, unfortunately, they leave their healthy skepticism behind. Take drug prohibition. Alcohol ruins far more lives, destroys more families, and kills more
bystanders than all illegal drugs put together. Conservatives
barely think about this problem, but they’re confident that we should keep fighting the
Drug War for the foreseeable future.
Unlike some libertarians, I agree that prohibition reduces consumption. But probably not by much – see the Netherlands or Portugal. And after the American experiment in alcohol prohibition – or Econ 101 – conservatives can’t reasonably deny
that violent crime and adulterated products are largely side effects not
of drugs, but of drug prohibition. Liberty will save lives – and when it does, conservatives should support it even if it isn’t popular.
Conservative opposition to immigration is even more disturbing. Immigration promotes almost every value my opponent mentions – especially for the low-skilled workers he wants to exclude. Life in the Third World ranges from hard to hellish. Just letting an immigrant move here to work at Walmart spreads happiness, prosperity, equality, common decency, and yes, survival. The economically illiterate assume, of course, that immigrants’ gains come at the expense of the native population. But conservatives know better: International trade enriches the people of both countries, even if they’re trading labor.
Yes, some American sub-groups lose. But Borjas himself, the most prominent detractor of immigration in economics, estimates that decades of immigration have cut high school drop-outs’ long-run wages by a mere 4.8%. And before you worry about the effect of immigration on the welfare state, remember that the American welfare state focuses on the old and the sick – and immigrants tend to be young and healthy.
I know I’m not going to convince conservatives to join me in calling for open borders. But it’s crazy to call open borders “crazy.” The U.S. had virtually open borders for over a century – and it was a tremendous success. Mass migration didn’t kill the goose that lay the golden eggs; instead, the golden geese multiplied like rabbits. It’s possible that immigrants will vote to destroy the system that attracted them, but unlikely. Immigrants come here because they prefer life here to life at home. It wouldn’t take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty.
Finally, let’s turn to foreign policy. I don’t know whether respecting the rights of innocents conflicts with our survival. Neither do you. The War on Terror might deter future attacks by putting the fear of God into our enemies. It might inspire future attacks by enraging otherwise harmless people who see their families die by American hands. It could go either way. This isn’t wishful thinking; it’s honest ignorance. (If you disagree, I will bet you; but since you claim knowledge, and I claim ignorance, I want odds). And honest ignorance isn’t worth killing for – especially when the victims are innocents.
Conservatives’ greatest strength is their skepticism of government. But they aren’t nearly skeptical enough. When
government “solves” dubious problems by dubious means, abolition – not moderation – is the sober solution. And the burden of proof shouldn’t fall on those who oppose the status quo, but on those who deprive their fellow human beings of their liberty.